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Research projects

Swedish Cinema and Everyday Life: A study of cinema-going in its peak and decline

About this project

Project information

Project status

In progress 2019 - 2021

Contact

Åsa Jernudd

Research subject

The overall purpose of the project is two-fold: to further our knowledge of how cinema was present in the lives of people in 1950s and 1960s Sweden and to deepen our understanding about how cinema-going is remembered as woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Viewing film is a routine activity in our media-saturated lives and the remembered experience of it is fleeting, complex and elusive. The banality of film viewing makes us blind to its importance in our lives. This is true today, when film can be accessed anytime on mobile digital devices, and it was true yesterday, when going to the cinema constituted the dominant paid-for leisure activity in most of the industrialized world. What was it like, when the experience of film involved routine trips going out to the cinema rather than streaming at home on Netflix? Did films mean something different? When cinema entertainment lost a major part of its audience in the early 1960s, how was this cultural shift experienced in people’s everyday lives? 

In the post war period youth culture in Sweden was saturated by film (Sjöholm 2003). It doesn’t seem so long ago yet traces of cinema culture from the 1950s and 1960s only remain as fragments dispersed in national, regional and local archives. Remnant traces of this culture need to be collected and secured for research as do the experiences of the audiences, before we lose them to time itself. This includes evidence tied to the cinemas such as architectural plans, photos, commercial and actuality films, post cards, advertisements and promotional material of film screenings such as trailers, program bills, posters, production stills and cinema advertisements as well as more ephemeral merchandise aimed at becoming collectables of fans such as flyers and portraits of stars. If this material is not collected, organised and analysed, then the centrality of cinema culture in everyday life will be difficult to grasp, perhaps out of reach for research and future reference. Furthermore, memories of cinema going are complex, fragile and embedded in cultural memory and identity formation (Kuhn 2002; Kuhn, Biltereyst & Meers 2017; Ercole, Treveri-Gennari & O'Raw 2017). Their analysis requires a methodological approach that considers also other contemporary expressions of cinema culture and its institutional contexts. When studied in this manner, historical cinema audience research provides a fresh perspective on canonized film history by offering several outcomes: rich - not to say thick - descriptions of film culture and cinema going in the context of everyday life; new knowledge about different audience’s film preferences and their institutional conditions in the period of the heyday of cinema; and finally, an ethnographic account of the decline of cinema going in the 1960s. By combining ethnographic methods and archival research, this project will open up new perspectives on the relationship between the institutional contexts of film consumption and the remembered experience of cinema-going (Biltereyst et al 2012). 

In a novel partnership with the National Library of Sweden (Kungliga Biblioteket) the project will make collections of cinema heritage material from the 1950s and 1960s that are currently unregistered and stored away, openly assessable in digital form. It will furthermore enhance the collections through mapping the cinemas in the region studied and by embedding information and links relevant to cinema-going that surface as the research progresses. This contribution to the website monitored by Kungliga Biblioteket, www.filmarkivforskning.se, is important to future research of national as well as international scope. It provides resources necessary to connect and compare scholarship on Swedish conditions of cinema and its audiences’ experiences to international research. 

This project will document and investigate the value of film in the everyday lives of people at a time when cinema-going was routine and ordinary. It also wants to understand the experience of cinema-going in the time of its decline as prime pastime. Cinema-going reached its peak in 1957 and then receded dramatically in the following years reaching into the mid-1960s. This irrevocable breach in the history of cinema has been blamed on the coming of television (Furhammar 2003). Other scholars point to a variety of changes in lifestyle as standards of welfare rose (Spigel 2001). The cultural shift has not been explored from the perspective of the audience. The respondents are the last surviving generation for which going to the cinema was the only way to experience film. With their cooperation, the project can make a significant contribution to the understanding of historical Swedish cinema audiences and film culture(s). This approach to film history “from below” will problematize the canonised notions of national film history by studying audience preference, reasons for the decline of cinema-going and the complexity of cinema memory. 

The geographical focus of the project is on a largely rural region in Sweden known as Bergslagen. In the post war period, Bergslagen was the industrial back bone of the booming Swedish welfare economy. A large number of cinemas existed in the region, in rural as well as in more densely populated areas. They were typically not modelled on the “city cinema”, although commercial cinemas also existed. Cinema in Bergslagen as elsewhere in rural Sweden was largely an integrated part of a leisure culture offered in multipurpose venues that were owned and operated by workers’ and temperance societies (Jernudd and Lundmark, 2016, 2020). The large number of society-driven cinemas in the region makes it exemplary for a study of multifaceted experiences of cinema-going. The region offers a novel approach to the study of cinema audiences by opening up to differences depending on location and economic as well as demographic features. It is pertinent to include rural societies in a study of historical popular culture and experience since it wasn’t until the 1960s that a majority of Sweden’s population had abandoned rural life. The regional perspective is furthermore chosen as it challenges the simplistic notion in traditional film historical research of a Hollywood classical paradigm of default city cinema exhibition on which a normative mode of experience and reception is modelled (Allen 2006). 

The proposed study actively ties in with ongoing studies at the international frontline of historical audience research. The project is modelled on the Italian Cinema Audiences project (https://italiancinemaaudiences.org/) and will proceed in dialogue with the ongoing project European Cinema Audiences, financed by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) involving seven second tier European cities. In the latter project Jernudd is involved in the steering committee and as national advisor. The current proposal also builds on a research initiation project, financed by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (F16-1138:1)(2016-2017) (Jernudd). The project involved a series of conferences with the aim of developing compatible methods for data collection, analysis and dissemination to facilitate international comparisons and synergies of historical cinema audience research. The Italian and European audience projects are both centred on the 1950s. This opens up for unique opportunities for research synergies as the current proposal overlaps to a degree in its time frame yet also adds something new by expanding the time scope (1950s to 1960s). The specific contribution of this study will be to provide insights from a rural perspective and involving also the relationship between urban and rural contexts. It also proffers an extended timeline that includes the experience of the demise of cinema-going. By engaging in a continuous dialog with ongoing studies at the international frontline of historical audience research the project will connect Swedish scholarship with the international research community working in this field.

Research funding bodies

  • Swedish Research Council

Collaborators

  • Kungliga Biblioteket